Video Girl Ai
by Justin Sevakis,
I started getting into anime when I was around thirteen years old. I'm fast approaching twenty-seven now, and one of the pleasures those years affords me is the ability to go back to the shows I loved so much growing up and revisiting them. The "maturity" of adulthood acts as quite a filter, and a majority of the anime that I absolutely adored in my teenage years simply don't hold up to adult scrutiny. Many of them are simply too juvenile and repetitive to have any lasting appeal (Ranma 1/2). Others have become such clichés that despite having not watched them for a decade, I'm still sick to death of their premise (Tenchi Muyo, Oh! My Goddess).
Yet, there are a few that are so intertwined with the time period of my life that it's impossible to separate one from the other. These are the shows that I related to on such a deep level that I saw myself in the plight of those onscreen, and the emotions within them so mirrored my own that referencing them became part of my thought process. Of these, I can think of none more important than the six-part OAV "Video Girl Ai."
Video Girl Ai
Yota Moteuchi, actually, is the friend that everyone goofs on mercilessly. Nicknamed "motenai" (by misreading the kanji -- Viz translates it amusingly as "dateless"), the girl he really likes is Moemi. Unfortunately, he's firmly in the "friend" camp, for Moemi really likes his best friend, the ultra-popular Takeshi. This tragedy reveals itself during a casual fall conversation in the park. Moemi admits her feelings. Takeshi makes it clear -- "you're not my type" -- and simultaneously, both of her and Yota's worlds end.
Yota is such a nice guy, though, that he's more upset that Moemi is in pain. Wandering home afterwards, he can barely live with himself. That's when a mysterious video store appears, beckoning him in. The store owner mutters something about it only appearing to the pure-hearted. Wandering over to the adult section, Yota sees a girl on a tape box that appeals to him.
Now, in Japan, video girls serve a strange purpose that I've not seen in any other media market. I guess you could call them "softcore porn", but many times the girls don't even get completely naked. Usually, they stare straight at the camera, talking directly to the viewer, for the purpose of fantasizing that the viewer is actually with them. They then change into various stages of undress, in various locales, and talk whatever lonely soul rented the video through various things like washing their back in the bathtub, giving them a shoulder massage, and more -- in between coos of self-esteem boosters like "you're so kind" and "stay with me forever." Often, whole minutes go by of just watching the girl prance around on a beach in a skimpy bikini, stopping occasionally to mug to the camera.
It's pretty inescapable that someone has to be in a pretty bad state to rent one of these tapes, and the fact that producing them is such a flourishing industry says a lot about the cold, lonely reality of Japan. Anyway, Yota certainly is lonely... He pops in the tape, and Ai-chan appears. "You poor thing. All right, from now on, Ai-chan will be there for you!" she proclaims, and with that, the magic happens, and before Yota knows it, she's laying on his bed.
But his VCR has been acting up, and Ai-chan is now a little... different from how she seemed in the video. She's now brash and uncouth, her boobs are smaller (!), she can't cook worth a damn... Yota, who's always alone, appreciates the company on some level, but he's still completely miserable. Ai tries to cheer him up, but in the process she discovers another defect in herself: she, herself, can fall in love.
For all of the silliness, the slapstick and the contrived scenes in Video Girl Ai (it IS co-directed by the guy that did Slayers, after all), there are moments that are so tender, so gentle and honest about the feeling of loneliness, that it's nearly impossible not to care for the characters involved. At the end of the first episode, Yota is flashing back repeatedly to that scene in the park, while curled up on his bed. Ai-chan reaches out a hand, touching his arm reassuringly. "Cheer up. Keep up the fight." The pain is almost palpable, and like Yota, we can almost feel it start to drain.
We get a few cute episodes in the middle of Ai-chan and Yota becoming closer. As appreciation for her efforts, Yota gives her a (hideous) dress, and it's adorable how overjoyed she gets, insisting on wearing it on a day out. But then, almost out of nowhere, the end takes some very unexpected, and surreal twists. The last episode takes place almost entirely in the mysterious realm of the Gods who created Ai-chan, and Yota is put through some of the most intense pain imaginable. It's one of the most compelling scenes I've ever seen, and it's an interesting (and brave) choice by the creators, who deviate wildly here from the original manga. A song by Nav Katse (who also contributed the unforgettable theme to the first episode) heightens the tension with its quietly baroque melody. The conclusion is thought provoking and somewhat open to interpretation, but it's ultimately satisfying.
When I was in high school, I could instantly relate to Yota. He's a nice guy, with low self-esteem and a lot to offer. He's also desperately lonely. The feeling of being so completely alone, the pain of feeling worthless and invisible... Video Girl Ai put into animation what I was feeling better than I was equipped to express. Although I couldn't share my feelings at the time, the idea that someone else could relate -- even someone animated -- was important. At a time in my life where I had literally nobody to talk to, this single anime made clear one point that hadn't occurred to me as I stewed in my depression: that there was a way out.
Unrequited love is a common theme in anime and manga. Depression, far less so. Whenever sprites and bright colors are involved, there's always the temptation to make everything bright and shiny, characters spunky and full of life, and their problems gigantic and fantastical. It's the little things in life that get you down. The mundane, the routine. And it's the little tragedies that truly seem world ending.
A lot has happened since then. I sought treatment for my depression (later diagnosed as bipolar disorder), left my home town and started a new life, and a career. I made real friends, dated, lived my youth. Coming back to Video Girl Ai as a happy person with a positive outlook on life, I no longer relate to Yota. That misery I felt seems like a different lifetime now, some ten years hence, and if I didn't remember those times, it would be easy to dismiss his troubles as "teen angst" or "love trouble."
It's important to realize that Ai-chan doesn't magically make everything okay. She can't really do anything but be there for Yota as he flounders in new obsessions, trying to get past his feelings with hard work. Ai doesn't lift him up so much as allow him to rise to the challenge. Regardless, by the end of the series Yota has found something to live for. And that's what's important.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
Where to get it: Viz released a DVD of Video Girl Ai in 2000, but it's sadly out of print. It does turn up online quite often, for not-too-inflated prices. (Just beware the bootlegs -- I found plenty of those too.) I rather enjoy the English dub, which captures the spirit of the original very well, despite some odd changes in the meaning of a handful of scenes. Like Please Save My Earth, all six episodes are on one disc, and the quality does suffer a little. The always-expensive region 2, which has no English, is on two discs. I've not seen this edition.
Screenshots ©1992 Masakazu Katsura/Shueisha. All rights reserved.
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